Musso & Frank’s Hollywood Legend

19 June, 2017

Since Los Angeles is our new home, we're eager to soak in its history and personality. Our friend (and regular LA Times contributor) Caroline Ryder will introduce us to the secrets of the city of angels. Today she talks to us about the ageless, iconic Musso & Frank.

Musso & Frank Grill shouldn't be Hollywood’s favorite place, but it is. Aging, faded, and steadfastly behind the times, it’s an anomaly in the capital of youth, serving nourishment to dreamers for nearly a century: everyone from Chaplin to Valentino, Chandler to McQueen, the Bohemians of the ’20s, the screenwriters of the ’30s, Noir authors to stars of ’70s New Hollywood cinema. This is where they made deals and drowned sorrows, attended by gray-haired servers in bow-ties. The same as it ever was.

Look for the sign at 6667 Hollywood Boulevard that reads, “OLDEST RESTAURANT IN HOLLYWOOD SINCE 1919.” Inside, the original pink-and-green pastoral wallpaper remains tinted by the cigarette smoke of countless Golden-Age starlets. Something about the place, with its dark wood booths, stoic bartenders, and swiveling bar chairs causes typical L.A. hierarchies to disintegrate. It’s one of the few places in town where tourists, politicians, ingenues and A-listers can eat side-by-side, equals in the pews.

The Old Room hasn’t changed since the ’30s, when people were still allowed to park their horses in the back. The New Room is where you’ll find the bar. The list of writers who drank there is like “required reading for a sophomore survey of the mid-20th century American novel,” according to the late, great California historian, Kevin Starr. Some say it’s the most-mentioned restaurant in West Coast literature. Bukowski was known to order too many Heinekens, and often had to be driven home to his apartment on Carlton Way in his Ford 200 by the legendary bartender Ruben Reuda, master of the Musso’s overpour since 1967.

If Raymond Chandler is your guy, order a gimlet for inspiration, and remember he wrote several chapters of The Big Sleep while sipping the same drink you're holding in the Back Room. Nathanael West was a regular, as you can tell by reading his dystopic masterpiece The Day of the Locust (1939), whose protagonist enjoys a steak and a double scotch at Musso’s. They say that Hemingway propped up the bar only a few times, maybe because Musso’s didn't make a Mojito, his favorite drink.

“Some say it’s the most-mentioned restaurant in West Coast literature.”

William Faulkner drank so many mint juleps at Musso’s, the bartenders let him mix his own. As legend has it, his recipe included seven sprigs of mint, half an ounce of simple syrup, three ounces of bourbon, and a chilled double Old-Fashioned glass filled with crushed ice. (It’s said that after a Saturday dinner and some juleps, Faulkner and Meta Carpenter, a script girl at 20th Century Fox, “had dessert” at the Knickerbocker Hotel on Ivar Avenue, beginning their 18-year romance.)

Frank Sinatra and Lauren Bacall
Dennis Hopper
Kennet Anger

Raymond Burr used to sit at the table by the bar and order double vodka gimlets back-to-back. The bartenders made Bing Crosby his own special punch, the “Picon Punch” (they kept a bottle of it for years after he died). Steve McQueen drank Löwenbräu, always sitting at the first chair at the counter, and sometimes too many (long-time bartender Reuda had him ejected from the premises for trying to start a fight one night; McQueen came back and apologized in the morning.

Of course, it’s the martini upon which Musso’s fame rests (“the best martini in town,” according to Dita Von Teese), made the old way: one part vermouth and five parts gin. The recipe hasn't changed since the martinis cost 55 cents, and likewise, the food here is boldly behind the times. While the rest of the city obsesses about matcha and avocado toast, Musso & Frank's vast, antiquated menu is an encounter with the late-’50s palate: a strange, nostalgic document filled with wrong turns that could land you in some deep jellied consommé (or roast lamb kidneys, Charlie Chaplin's go-to). Chaplin lunched at Musso’s every day, and was also partial to the Irish stew. Valentino loved the spaghetti. Rock Hudson was a fan of the corned beef and cabbage. Keith Richards orders the liver and onions whenever he’s in town (the Stones have their own preferred booth, number 24). The flannel cakes, Musso’s signature brunch dish of thin crepes, have had an illustrious fan club of their own, including Greta Garbo, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, and Sir Ian McKellan.

Wizards, waiters, and wannabes are all pilgrims at this shrine for the faithless. Whether they’re hungry for flannel cakes or the lost traditions wrapped up in them, who knows. Meanwhile, the Boulevard around Musso’s continues to jostle, crowded with vape shops, craft beer, cold drip, selfie sticks, the future encroaching on this ageless diva of the Boulevard, pummeling the vestiges of the city’s more dignified past.

Words by Caroline Ryder.

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